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There is no denying how much a lack of lottery luck has impacted the Coyotes’ ability to draft elite players. They have never picked No. 1 or No. 2 overall in a draft, they have consistently dropped slots in the lottery, and they didn’t get the right bounce of the balls when they had the chance to draft stars Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews. They’re not even in the top 12 of this pretty chart that Dom created, even though they have only qualified for the playoffs once since 2012 — and that one time came in 2020 with an expanded playoff field (losing your first-round pick in consecutive years doesn’t help).
There is also no denying how much a lack of resources has impacted the Coyotes’ ability to draft elite players. The scouting and development staffs have consistently lacked resources and/or proper staffing. Former GM Don Maloney told me that while the NHL owned the team — after former owner Jerry Moyes put it into bankruptcy and before IceArizona saved the day — Maloney had one, part-time scout to canvas the entire European continent. This led the staff essentially to give up on Europe — they drafted four European players between 2010-2013 and only one played more than two NHL games — and focus on North America.
Those two factors notwithstanding, there is also no denying that the Coyotes have drafted poorly through most of their 25 years in the Valley. There have been some bright spots (we’ll get to those in a moment) and it cannot be overemphasized how important player development and patience are in turning those prospects into impact players, but if you look through the Coyotes’ draft history, there have been a lot of mistakes.
The 1997-2003 period is especially dark. The Coyotes did not find one impact player in those seven drafts, and they somehow made it through the 2003 draft without landing a single player who played an NHL game. It didn’t help that the Coyotes had traded out of the first two rounds of what is considered one of the best two drafts of this millennium, but to come up empty is downright embarrassing.
GM Bill Armstrong has been accumulating draft picks at a dizzying rate this offseason and he will get the chance to put those chips into play this weekend at the NHL Draft. “So what,” you say. “The Coyotes will just waste them again.” Well, there is no doubt that Armstrong, director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski, associate director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski and the staff must perform over the next few seasons, but if Coyotes fans can take one shred of solace in yet another rebuild, it is this: the Coyotes have put two men with extensive experience and success in place, they have devoted significant resources to scouting (the lifeblood of any organization), and there are plans to beef up scouting even more.
Maybe Armstrong, Plandowski and Co. can finally change a longstanding narrative. Many factors have limited the Coyotes’ success, but none has played a greater role than their draft and development failures. Just take a look at who made the list of top 10 Coyotes draft picks. You might want to find a quiet and soundproof place before you read this. And maybe you should bring a box of tissues or a Bobo doll like this Blackhawks version I bought a few years back.
Before I begin, an explanation of the methodology. I evaluated a player’s entire career, whether it was largely spent with the Coyotes or largely spent elsewhere. The round in which a player was drafted also mattered. Late-round picks who succeeded got a boost in the rankings because the success rate in those rounds is so much much smaller. Finally, I did not factor in players these picks might have brought back in trades. The evaluation was based solely on these players’ performances.
As a reminder, the Coyotes own seven selections in this weekend’s draft.
Second round: 37th, 43rd and 60th overall
Fourth round: 107th and 122nd overall
Fifth round: 139th overall
Sixth round: 171st overall
The top 10 draft picks in Coyotes history
1. Blake Wheeler
Legend has it that then-GM Mike Barnett called staffers to tell them, “We’re going to shock the world” before the Coyotes made Wheeler the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Draft. Wheeler was ranked No. 17 on Central Scouting’s final list of North American skaters. Nobody had him going that high. Unfortunately, Barnett left out the part about the Coyotes never actually signing Wheeler.
They dragged their feet, Barnett was fired and replaced by Maloney, and by the time the Coyotes offered him a deal, Wheeler had no intention of signing with a franchise in disarray. When his collegiate career at Minnesota ended, Wheeler became a free agent, he signed an entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins and the Coyotes were left with a second-round compensatory pick that they traded.
In 13 NHL seasons, Wheeler has 279 goals and 807 points. That’s the most points by any Coyotes draft pick. Wheeler has also been the Jets’ captain since the 2016-17 season. You might say that Wheeler is both the best and worst draft pick in Coyotes history. What a way to begin the top 10 list.
2. Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Recency bias will probably turn some readers against this selection. Ekman-Larsson has not played like an elite NHL defenseman for the past four seasons, but he holds every meaningful franchise record by a D-man, including those listed below the photo above.
There have been just 155 instances of a defenseman scoring 20 goals or more in an NHL season and Ekman-Larsson has done it twice, including the 2015-16 season when he had 21 goals and 55 points, marking the best single season by a Coyotes defenseman that I have witnessed. It was downright criminal that he finished ninth in Norris Trophy voting that season. He absolutely should have been a finalist.
Ekman-Larsson was so good during the Coyotes’ run to the 2012 conference finals — his first full NHL season after his selection at No. 6 overall in 2009 — that he logged a team-high 25:47 of average ice time in the playoffs, which was about three minutes more than the next closest player, Derek Morris. No matter what happens this offseason with OEL on the trade block, he is one of the best Coyotes in the team’s 25-year history and he will be in the ring of honor one day.
3. Keith Yandle
Teammate Shane Doan called him “a riverboat gambler.” The moniker was perfect for the high-risk, high-reward style that Yandle employed in his nine seasons in Arizona. As a fourth-round pick out of Cushing Academy, Yandle is without question the best late-round pick the Coyotes have ever pulled out of their hat (Conor Garland has a chance to challenge that standing), and he is also one of the best Coyotes in franchise history.
Yandle led the Coyotes in points in back-to-back seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14), he has the most points in a single season by a Coyotes defenseman (59 in 2010-11) and he could make those jaw-dropping stretch passes that left you speechless. His trade to the New York Rangers on March 1, 2015 signaled the real end of the best era of Coyotes hockey.
Yandle’s 600 points are the third most of any Coyotes draft pick and his 922 consecutive games played are 43 games short of breaking Doug Jarvis’ NHL record. Like Ekman-Larsson, I suspect that Yandle’s name and number will be unveiled in the ring of honor one day after his approaching retirement. I don’t know if Yandle will bring the same brand of dry humor to the big stage that he brought to small gatherings and the dressing room, but let’s hope so. It will be worth the price of admission, no matter what happens in the game that follows.
4. Daniel Briere
There was so much excitement surrounding the Coyotes’ drafting of Danny Briere with the 24th overall pick of the 1996 NHL Draft. He had put up 293 points over his final two seasons with Drummondville of the QMJHL, and it looked like the Coyotes might have a No. 1 center to pluck from their first ever draft in Arizona.
Briere struggled early in his career to adapt to the physical, clutch-and-grab nature of the NHL, but by 2001-2002, he had 60 points and 32 goals, tied for the fifth-most goals scored in a single season by a Coyote. Then GM Mike Barnett decided the Coyotes needed more size up the middle so he traded Briere and a 2004 third-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Chris Gratton and a 2004 fourth-round pick on March 10, 2003. This came just before the lockout, and just before the rules changed to open up the game and benefit smaller players. It is one of the worst trades in Coyotes history.
I was on that road trip in Colorado when they pulled Briere off the team bus after a game at Pepsi Center. Tears streamed down his face as he said goodbye in a heartfelt interview. Coyotes fans cried a lot more when Briere had 32 goals and 95 points in the 2006-07 season with the Sabres. He topped 25 goals five times and 55 points six times after leaving the Coyotes, and he became known as a clutch playoff performer, including a 12-goal, 30-point effort (in 23 games) for Philadelphia in the 2009-10 playoffs as the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Final.
It is criminal that two of the four best draft picks in Coyotes history played the brunt of their careers elsewhere, and the Coyotes are threatening to do it again with a couple more picks a little lower on this list.
5. Martin Hanzal
Hanzal’s NHL ascension was quick. After watching his 26-goal, 85-point season (60 games) under coach Brent Sutter in Red Deer in 2006-07, the Coyotes opted to keep the 2005 No. 17 overall pick on their 2007-08 roster. He never played a game in the AHL. Some analysts felt that was a mistake, but Hanzal never looked out of place in the NHL and he thrived once coach Dave Tippett arrived for the 2009-10 season.
In 673 NHL games (608 of them with the Coyotes), Hanzal had 127 goals and 338 points, but it’s not the offensive production for which he will be remembered.
“Most teams have a No. 1 center, a No. 2 and a No. 3,” Tippett said. “We asked him to be No. 1 and No. 3 both and that’s a hard job to do.
“We asked him to play against top players every night — be hard, physical and shut them down — but also we needed him to be an effective offensive player and be a net-front guy on the power play. He didn’t have an easy part of the game. All of his parts were the hard parts of the game, but he relished those challenges. It was a unique ability but he was a big, strong player that in the end had a huge impact on the game every night.”
6. Jakob Chychrun
Natural ability, work ethic and attitude won’t be the things that keep Chychrun from climbing this list in the seasons to come. The only things that might hold the budding star back is the state of his body or the state of the roster. In the past six years, Chychrun has endured shoulder surgery (leading into his draft year), a pair of major knee surgeries, another shoulder injury, a hip injury and wrist surgery this offseason to reattach a small ligament that gives the wrist stability and movement.
If the Coyotes ever make a deep playoff run, their players might play more than 100 games. They will need Chychrun on the ice for most of those games because his impact is unquestionable. His breakout season came this year when he led all NHL defensemen with 18 goals and had 41 points. That projected to 26 goals and 60 points over a full season, both of which would have been Coyotes single-season records.
Chychrun finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting this season (too low in my opinion; I had him third). Like Ekman-Larsson, Chychrun may be challenged to produce more points on a stripped down team that is looking to restock its cupboards for three to four years down the line. If his trajectory continues over the next couple of seasons, he will go down as former GM John Chayka’s best move.
7. Conor Garland
NHL teams are circling like sharks around Garland, just as they were at the trade deadline last season. Vegas, Boston, Toronto, the New York Islanders, Florida, Edmonton, New Jersey, Vancouver, Los Angeles and probably more teams have expressed interest. If he moves on, it will be a shame because Garland is the exact kind of story that you want your organization to forge: a homegrown guy who worked tirelessly to develop his game in the AHL and then, when he was finally ready, succeeded at the NHL level.
Garland had 39 points in 49 games this season. He has shown a willingness to go to the net. He has shown an ability to play with the puck. He has shown a competitive fire that rubs off on his teammates, and he has shown an ability to rise in big moments.
If he moves on, it won’t be because the Coyotes are dying to trade him. It will be because they feel hamstrung by other contracts. Like Wheeler and Briere, such a deal could come back to bite the Coyotes down the road if Garland keeps ascending as he believes he will, and as his offseason regimens suggest that he will. Few Coyotes have brought such an exciting and unique style of play to Gila River Arena.
8. Kyle Turris
Few players are reviled by Coyotes fans as much as Turris, who essentially forced his way out of Arizona in a contract dispute. Turris held out to start the 2011-12 season (the same year the Coyotes went to the Western Conference Final). He also alienated himself in the Coyotes' veteran-laden locker room. His agent, Kurt Overhardt, eventually requested a trade that was granted.
Time has healed many of those wounds. So, too has the fact that barely any faces remain in that organization. The Coyotes ownership is different, the management staff is different, the coaching staff is different and only Oliver Ekman-Larsson remains (for now) from that 2011-12 roster.
When I interviewed him two seasons ago at Gila River Arena, Turris appeared to have moved past those early NHL days, and many of his former teammates (including Doan) feel the same.
"I've matured a lot," Turris said. "I've gained a ton of experience and confidence. I was always confident in my ability when I was here but it’s a different kind of confidence having done things that you feel have been big steps toward the player you want to become. The past successes I've had have given me the confidence to move forward.”
Turris never lived up to his draft status as the No. 3 overall pick 2007, and his game is clearly in decline now, but he had three 50-plus point seasons with Ottawa (including 24 goals and 64 points in 2014-15), he helped the Senators come within one game of the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, and his 421 points are the fourth-most by a Coyotes draft pick. Turris, 31, still has three years remaining on a contract with an average annual value of $6 million.
9. Christian Dvorak
Big, effective, two-way centermen are hard to find. No organization knows this better than the Coyotes, and yet Dvorak’s name has once again been linked in trade rumors to at least a half a dozen teams. It’s odd because he is playing on a good contract ($4.45 million AAV for four more years), he wins faceoffs, he is 25 and he is widely respected and liked within the dressing room.
Dvorak probably has room to grow in his offensive game, but he put up 17 goals and 31 points in 56 games last season, which equates to 25 goals and 45 points over a full season. Dvorak’s greatest sin in the eyes of some is that he is not a No. 1 center. That’s not his fault. He was a second-round pick (No. 58 overall in 2014) and he is not paid like a No. 1 center. He slots perfectly as a middle-six center, in both production and pay.
The Coyotes may want to begin a complete rebuild, but they should think long and hard about dealing Dvorak. An effective center in hand is usually better than a center prospect or two who may or may not develop into effective NHL players.
10. Daniel Winnik
Daniel Winnik was a ninth-round draft pick. Ninth round! They don’t do those any more. They got rid of them the year (2004) after Winnik went at No. 265 to the Coyotes.
Despite the long odds he faced, Winnik played 798 NHL games, he scored 82 goals and he sits ninth all-time in points (251) among Coyotes draft picks. I could have gone a lot of ways with the 10th and final selection. Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Peter Mueller and Mikkel Boedker all have strong arguments, but Winnik’s draft position, production and longevity tipped the scales for me.
By the way, Winnik is still playing at age 36. He had 46 points in 49 games with Genève-Servette HC in the Swiss League. I might have to do a Catching Up With him soon. He’s a great story.
Honorable mention: Clayton Keller, Max Domi, Connor Murphy, Mikkel Boedker, Peter Mueller, Trevor Letowski, who was just named an assistant coach for the Montreal Canadiens.
Wait and see: Adin Hill, Ivan Prosvetov, Barrett Hayton, Jan Jeník, Victor Söderström, Matias Maccelli.
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan